Before watching the movie:
Here’s one more that’s always been something I would probably get to eventually. It doesn’t seem to have much to recommend it to my tastes, but it was too big to ignore forever. I foresee a slow motion CGI mess with a couple of dead memes and hardly any plot, but it’s based on a Frank Miller comic, so there’s some hope that it has some engagement besides the visual spectacle I expect to enjoy until it overstays its welcome.
After watching the movie:
In the Greek city-state of Sparta, where the men are trained from birth in combat and the women are as tough as any other city’s men, a messenger comes to Sparta’s King Leonidas to tell him that King Xerxes demands a tribute of “earth and water” as a token of fealty to the empire of Persia. Leonidas sends all the Persians in the party to the bottom of the pit they throw all their weak newborns into, knowing this action will bring Xerxes’ wrath. As no Spartan king may go to war without the blessing of the Ephors, disfigured old men who interpret the murmurs of the Oracles, Leonidas brings his plan to them, but is told that the Oracle says that if he goes to war during the Carneia festival, he will fail. Though the Ephors were secretly bribed by Xerxes, the Spartan Council refuses to mobilize the army. Leonidas therefore takes a company of 300 volunteers as his “bodyguards” as he “takes a walk” in the direction of Xerxes’ army of 300,000, joining with a few thousand Arcadians and Athenians. His plan is to hold the line at a narrow mountain pass that only a few men can walk through side by side. Back in Sparta, Queen Gorgo tries to convince the Council to bring the army to support her husband and save Greece.
Frank Miller tends to lean on themes that had already started to age poorly by the time this movie was made, which are magnified by Snyder. The entire movie is greatly preoccupied with ogling everyone’s flesh. The heroic warriors who are all bodybuilder fantasies, the conventionally sexy women who are there to be used by the men and looked at by the audience in and out of barely-there clothes, the grotesque deformed outcasts and Persian soldiers, and even a scene of deformed Persian harem women.
This story has a classic (read: highly predictable) turn through Ephialtes, a humpbacked man raised in exile by parents who left Sparta to raise their deformed son rather than dispose of him. Leonidas refuses to accommodate his disability, saying he would not be able to fight in the Spartan style. While that refusal directly leads to Leonidas’s end and so could be seen as a hubristic flaw (a reading that’s backed up by some devastatingly powerful Persian soldiers with deformities), it’s not so much Leonidas’s prejudice but Sparta’s, and Sparta never addresses or learns from this failing, they just draw strength from the heroic feat of the 300 holding the line until they were betrayed.
The highly stylized visual design is definitely a feat, and there are plenty of shots that it’s clear they made an effort to recreate panels from the comic. Unfortunately, the muted and grimy look they’re trying hard to emulate is what overstays its welcome over the course of nearly three hours the most.
While the action was kind of bloated and bland, I actually did enjoy what plot there was, the testing of the resolve of Leonidas and of his army. The internal, emotional arcs are actually the most interesting part, even if the outcomes are pretty well known in advance. I have the impression that Gladiator would be a better use of my time when watching from that perspective, but this does have a kernel to enjoy, nestled among a lot to mock and criticize.